The best way to visit this remarkable town is to fly in for a couple of days.
Axum is the oldest city in Ethiopia: it is believed to have been in existence three centuries B.C. and between the first and seventh centuries A.D it was the hub of the Axumite Empire. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded here in the fourth century and Axum remains the holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was an important crossroads of trading caravans from Europe, Africa and Asia.
Tigrai and Eritrea are distinctly different to the rest of Ethiopia. The landscape is of sandstone mountains, harsh and dry, so different to the fertile south. The houses are built to last, of stone, and there are acres of stone terraces, which are used to cultivate slopes.
History and what to see
According to the Old Testament, Queen of Sheba was born in Axum, but traveled to Israel to meet King Solomon. They had a son named Menelik, who later became the first emperor of Ethiopia.
It is believed in some quarters that Menelik brought the original Arc of the Covenant back to Ethiopia from Israel. Today, the Arc, which once housed the Ten Commandments, remains well hidden in Axum. It is guarded by a select group of monks, whose sole commitment is to protect the sacred vessel.
Axum is also known for its massive, towering sculptures, or stelae that are more than two thousand years old. There are more than 120 of them made of smooth, grey stone. There is one which is 82ft high and has recently been returned from Italy. Mussolini’s troops took it during World war 11.
The significance of these stelae is still under investigation and by dating from around 300-500 AD, most the Axum stelae seem to predate the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia. Their purpose is almost certainly religious.
The largest obelisk (108 feet long) has fallen and lies shattered across the ground, allowing a close-up inspection of the carvings. If it were still standing, it would be the tallest obelisk in the world. It may have fallen as soon as it was erected, representing the visible results of a trial-and-error in creating giant upright stele. According to legend, it covers the grave of the Queen of Sheba.
After you have taken in all this extraordinary history, visit churches, tombs the stalae field you may want to do a bit of retail therapy. There are many shops selling religious icons and cotton shama cloth.